Your Checklist for Creating a Winning Print Portfolio

Your Checklist for Creating a Winning Print Portfolio

Photos by Sarah Jacobs

When it comes to pitching new clients, there seems to be an invisible barrier between photographer and buyer: the photographer is left guessing what might appeal to the client, and the client is left frustrated by the photographer who misses the mark.

So let’s get back to the basics. We talked to both buyers and photographer reps to get their take on an across-the-board checklist for creating a print portfolio.  Here’s what they had to say:

1. Focus on one story or specialty

There are very few photographers who have successfully mastered every specialty (or even more than a handful of them). One telltale sign of an amateur photographer is one who tries to appeal to everyone, and hasn’t honed his or her talent. You should do a few things, and do them well. That might be weddings, engagement shoots, and portraits; food and lifestyle; sports and action photography; and the list goes on.

Your specialty should be obvious when a prospective client views your portfolio. A specific job will come up, and the client will go through his/her Rolodex (virtual or actual) for the right photographer. If that job falls within your specialty, you want to be that photographer.

Art buyer Bonnie Brown suggests that photographers limit their portfolio to feature 1-3 specialties. “Get feedback as to what others in the field feel your strong area is,” she says.

If your work features more storytelling, then the same suggestion applies – go for one strong story rather than images from several different projects. Most clients who would consider hiring someone like you will appreciate seeing a single series because their assignments tend to be story-based (whether it’s a magazine, ad campaign, brochure, etc.).

2. Choose quality over quantity

The number of images clients prefer to see in your portfolio varies from 15 to 50, but one thing is clear: err on the side of quality. It’s the content, not the number, that counts.

“The optimum number of pictures will vary with each photographer’s portfolio,” says Wonderful Machine‘s CEO Bill Cramer. “A more accomplished photographer can certainly push the number of pages more than less accomplished photographers can. But if I had to put a number on it, I’d say 50 photos is enough to show the depth and breadth of your skill without wearing people out.”

3. Remember the allure of print

It’s easy to get caught up in the glamour of a tablet’s shiny screen. But it turns out that the proliferation of iPads and other tablets is your #1 reason for sticking with print. Nothing outdoes the feeling of flipping through printed photos, and they tend to make much more of an impact – especially if your prospective client would likely publish your work in print.

Adds Bill Cramer, “Beyond the pictures themselves, a print portfolio gives photographers a chance to choose materials and construction that show another aspect of their creativity.”

Photo consultant Jasmine DeFoore loves small and simple photo books for the portfolio. “I am now convinced that the iPad is just not the best way to show still photography,” she says. “I think if you have a lot of video/multimedia, it makes sense, but otherwise it’s less than ideal.”  Check out her full webinar discussing this very topic: getting organized and building a better portfolio.

4. Get traditional about size

The consensus for print portfolios is generally 11″ x 14″. Any smaller, and your images will be difficult to see; any bigger and it might make for expensive shipping (if you can’t meet in person). That being said, follow your creative instinct and do what reflects who you are as a person and photographer. Traditional is safe, but out-of-the-box thinking can help you score with clients who are on the same page as you creatively.

5. Reflect your brand

We’re constantly touting the importance of having your brand touch every part of your business. Be sure not to forget your print portfolio, which should include your logo, colors, and be designed in a way that fits your brand. If you shoot big rock concerts, you might attach guitar strings on the cover; similarly, a fine art photographer might include mock-ups of how the prints look framed to help clients visualize the final product.

Photo rep Frank Meo of, who’s spoken at APA events on topics like Creative Estimating, says, “If you don’t succeed in ‘creative separation’ (i.e. standing out from the crowd), it is a failed portfolio.”

6. Appeal to your target client

If you know which prospective clients will be viewing your portfolio (or even who you would like to be looking at it), make sure your work fits their style. Simply put, don’t go showing off a portfolio filled with lifestyle imagery on the beach if your client only features photos of capped mountains. Pay attention to the type of work your client usually goes for, and keep that in the back of your mind when editing your portfolio.

Commercial photographer Alexa Miller realized the importance of matching her portfolio to her clients’ needs after meeting with and being turned down by several New York-based buyers. She went home, built up a portfolio of Western U.S. landscapes while living in Montana, and then took that book back to New York . Suddenly, clients seeking that type of imagery were ready to hire.

7. Be patient

Don’t commit to creating a print portfolio if you don’t have the resources – that includes time, money, and imagery. “It sounds so simple, but a classic mistake photographers make is to approach us before they’ve had enough experience,” says National Geographic Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist. “Then their work is just not at the level that would give us the confidence to begin a relationship with them.”

Take the time to develop your photographic style and confidence. And don’t rush the editing and creative process. Most importantly, you should be proud of your portfolio. That pride will show clients you’re ready to do business.

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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Libby at 5:32 am

    Funny, I went 11×14 for my main print book in 2002 and people thought I was insane for going that large. Thanks for lending your voice here.

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